Keeping pigs, people and the public healthy during fairs and exhibitions

Swine exhibitors can be proactive by using different strategies to help reduce stress and minimize the spread of disease at their events this year.

Use these strategies to help reduce swine stress at the fair.
Use these strategies to help reduce swine stress at the fair.

A swine project is a great learning experience for youth across the state. In recent years, the number of youth exhibiting swine at county fairs has continued to rise, causing the animal and people interaction to grow. It can be a unique challenge for county fairs and exhibitions to keep the pigs, the people and the public healthy during their event.

In 2016, Michigan faced a health challenge with three county fairs having confirmed cases of swine influenza A-H3N2. This specific strain of the influenza virus was a zoonotic (from animals to people or people to animals) strain and resulted in 12 confirmed human cases of influenza. Michigan State University Extension, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, along with local health departments, provided guidance as the county fairs responded to the outbreaks. Looking ahead, it’s time to be proactive and put in place the lessons we learned from 2016 by using proven strategies to keep everyone healthy and reduce the spread of disease.

The goal of all exhibitions should be to have healthy pigs at their event. If the pigs enter the fair healthy and we use different approaches help minimize the spread of disease, the fair will go smoother for everyone. To help you create a plan for keeping pigs, people and the public healthy, we have summarized 10 strategies that can help reduce swine stress and, ultimately, the stress of everyone in the barn.

1. Fair veterinarian

Only healthy animals should be allowed on the fairgrounds. Fair leadership should work with those in charge of the animal divisions to devise a plan to have all of the animals inspected at check-in. Any animals that are suspect should be examined by the fair veterinarian. Animals that are showing signs of illness, such as elevated temperatures or external parasites, should be asked to return home and not be allowed on the grounds.

2. Heat stress

A pig’s ability to deal with heat is less than that of many other species due to their lack of functional sweat glands. Choosing load-in/out times during the coolest part of the day will help reduce the stress on the animals. Consider making changes to allow pigs to come in and leave the fair at night when it should be a cooler temperature. Additionally, scheduling your swine show during the coolest part of the day will also help. Moving the show to mornings or evenings or even splitting up the show can drastically reduce the amount of stress on the animal.

If your fair week takes place during a period of extreme hot weather, minimizing the need to move and stress the animals should be a priority. For example, it may be proactive to keep the pigs in the barn during the livestock auction and display photos of the pigs or only have the exhibitor in the auction ring. This will not only reduce the stress on the animal, but it will decrease the comingling of the animals and nose-to-nose contact. In turn, this will help diminish the spread of disease.

3. Reduce the number of days on the grounds

By limiting the number of days the pigs are on the fairgrounds, you will minimize the amount of time pigs and people are exposed to each other. Limiting exposure will decrease the spread of disease. It is suggested to have swine on the ground for only 72 hours, although this can be a challenge when scheduling your events, but is an important conversation to have with stakeholders to keeps pigs, exhibitors and fairgoers healthy.

4. Air quality

It is always important to have good air quality in your barns and this is done by having good ventilation. Fans can be used to help circulate the air and keep the pigs cool; however, it is important to understand the direction of your air flow. Because many viruses are spread through the air on water droplets from a coughing or sneezing pig, too much air flow could actually be counter-productive in managing a disease outbreak.

5. Bedding

Providing your animals with clean, dry bedding is also important to help control disease spread. Most viruses thrive in wet, moist, hot conditions and therefore exhibitors should take care to clean their pen daily. If at any time a large amount of wet shavings is in the pen area from a leaky waterer or another source, the wet shavings should be removed from the pen. This can be costly for exhibitors, so consider finding sponsors to donate shavings to the fair. Having the shavings available (even to purchase) at the fair is a big step to cleaner pens.

6. Water

Work with exhibitors to make sure their pigs are watered often; because of their lack of functional sweat glands, this will be one of the few ways to help cool your animals. Although nipple water or self-waterers can be used to provide a constant source of water, care should be taken to make sure they are properly working and do not result in a wet pen. Consider allowing or encouraging exhibitors to use a bucket to water their pigs instead.

7. Weather changes

Be prepared for the unpredictable weather that comes each year with fair. Pigs are easily affected by adverse weather conditions and do not respond well to extreme hot or cold weather. Most county fairs and exhibitions in Michigan take place during the hot summer months. Have a plan in place to be able to avoid drastic changes in temperature, methods to allow animals to cool and reduce stress by decreasing the amount the pigs are moved.

8. Hand-washing

This may be the most important factor in reducing the spread of zoonotic diseases. Many common viruses can be killed by using soap and water after coming into contact with animals. It is important to encourage hand-washing with your exhibitors and fair family. Although they might think they are not susceptible to disease, they actually have the highest risk because of their direct handling of the animal.

Think about where people, especially exhibitors, enter and leave the barn and place a hand-washing station in close proximity to that area. If you don’t have a working hand-washing station near there, it’s a great time to fundraise to make or buy one. It is also important to have a designated person checking the stations to make sure they are functioning throughout the fair week and are properly stocked with supplies.

9. Communication

It is important to communicate with the public, exhibitors and your fair family. Using proper signage to encourage fairgoers to wash their hands and not eat or drink in the building is essential to protecting public health. Have a pre-fair meeting with swine exhibitors and fair families to go over certain protocols you have in place, stress to them why it is critical for everyone that comes into contact with animals to wash their hands and take proper health precautions. Remind exhibitors that their actions set examples for the public. Talking points for having exhibitor meetings can be found on MSU Extension’s Swine Influenza page.

10. Eliminate eating and drinking in the barn

Fairs are a social atmosphere with exhibitors wanting to spend the majority of their time in the barn. Often times, meals are consumed and sometimes even cooked in the barn. Remember that viruses travel on water droplets that are expelled by an animal coughing or sneezing and can easily land on the food we eat while we are in the barns. By eliminating food consumption in the barns, we reduce this risk. Make plans to change this habit by providing an alternative area for social interactions and food consumption at fairs.

Additional resources can be found on the Michigan State University Extension website for animal science content. Specifically, a new Swine Influenza webpage was created in 2016 to help keep everyone healthy. For more ideas on how to practice biosecurity and prevent diseases, consider utilizing Animal Science Anywhere lessons to teach youth and adults.

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